A Reuters exclusive report recently broke the news that more than 100,000 Iraqis who worked for the U.S. Government or have another U.S. affiliation are currently waiting to be considered for U.S. refugee resettlement—but only 48 Iraqis have been admitted so far this fiscal year, which ends in September.
At the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), which provides free legal assistance to Iraqis in this situation, we see the direct impact every day. Our client Sam, an Iraqi interpreter who worked for the U.S. military, was approved for resettlement but, in the aftermath of the executive order banning refugees and travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, is now left in indefinite limbo, living in hiding for fear of his life. Yousif, who was resettled to the United States several years ago, is unable to reunite with his family, who are unsure if they will ever be processed amidst the endless backlog.
Yazidi military interpreters and their families are also among those waiting, left to grapple with the danger from their employment and the aftermath of the Islamic State’s genocide against their community.
Previously, Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government, most as combat linguists serving on mission with the U.S. Armed Forces, could apply to the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program as a pathway to safety. The SIV program still operates for Afghan wartime partners—for now—but the SIV program for Iraqis closed to new applicants in September 2014.
All those who did not apply before September 2014 must now go through the process of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which has been dismantled in large part under the Trump Administration. But Iraqis faced delays in their ability to reach safety long before then. As the so-called Islamic State took massive swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad stopped holding interviews for applicants due to security concerns for U.S. Government personnel. This meant that, as our partners were facing unimaginable danger, their only lifeline was put on hold. Although processing resumed in 2015, it was in small numbers.
Nor is this the first time that an anti-immigrant agenda has threatened our Iraqi wartime partners. The American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015, which passed the House of Representatives in 2015, also targeted Iraqi refugees with screening measures that would have made their resettlement virtually impossible. The Trump Administration’s new security measures, though, have accomplished the goal of cutting off this pathway to safety without an act of Congress.
This means that many Iraqi allies live outside Iraq as refugees, in hiding or in danger. Some have been able to conceal that they worked for the United States but live in fear that this information will be divulged. Some already in the United States are separated from their immediate relatives with no reunion in sight. This is especially worrying because many relatives of our clients have faced threats or been murdered because of their family member’s service to the U.S.
All the while, the U.S. maintains 5,000 troops in Iraq, in addition to a sizeable diplomatic and humanitarian mission. We still need the help of our local allies.
The Administration can fix this; in fact, per the Reuters article, the Pentagon has already identified solutions. First, the Administration should look at the new security checks it imposed and identify ways for the process to move more quickly. Processing only 48 people in more than ten months is not thorough processing; it’s effectively a halt to processing.
Second, the Administration should set a refugee ceiling of 75,000 or, at absolute minimum, maintain its current refugee ceiling of 45,000 for the upcoming fiscal year. This is already a historical low, and further cuts will harm not just our worldwide refugee program, but also our Iraqi partners and our reputation among those who might seek to work with the U.S. military in the future. Congress should make clear to the Administration that it expects our Iraqi partners to have access to safety.
Otherwise the U.S. deserves the scathing summary by General Michael Hayden in response to the most recent news: “A national shame.”
Betsy Fisher is the Policy Director of the International Refugee Assistance Project.